Dir: Christopher Nolan. US. 2002. 117 mins.
Christopher Nolan, the promising writer-director behind Following and Memento, makes an elegant and assured transfer to big-budget, star-driven film-making with Insomnia, one of the rare Hollywood remakes of a European film which is as good as the original. Expertly crafted and eminently intelligent, Insomnia will be a sizeable hit with adult audiences seeking out a smart thriller which is intriguing, thought-provoking and genuinely suspenseful. Boosted by its haunting Alaska settings and a top-notch cast, Warner Bros (North America, France and Germany), BVI (UK, Latin America and Scandinavia) and international independents which have bought the film can look forward to a long-lasting, solid box-office performer. The film had its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in new York last week and opens in North America on May 24.
The 1997 original, co-written by Erik Skjoldbjaerg and Nikolaj Frobenius and directed by Skjoldbjaerg, was a chilling story set in the north of Norway where the sun never sets. Effectively transposed to a small town in Alaska also cursed with perpetual daylight, the remake, courtesy of Hillary Seitz's clever screenplay, expands the story and the relationships in it while remaining faithful to its all-pervasive tone of unease.
Wally (Memento) Pfister's camera captures the splendour of the icy landscapes as LAPD detectives Will Dormer (Pacino) and his partner Hap (Donovan) arrive by helicopter to help the local sheriff's department with its investigation into the murder of a 17-year-old girl. But Nolan and Pfister quickly switch to a claustrophobic feel as the detectives land and begin their investigation in dark police stations, hotel rooms and school classrooms shielded from the oppressive sunlight outside. Dormer and Hap are also feeling the pressure since they are both under investigation by internal affairs back in LA for planting evidence in a conviction case. Dormer risks losing his reputation and his job if Hap fulfils his threats to co-operate with the inquiry for the sake of his family.
Local suspicion in the murder case has fallen on the girl's boyfriend (Jackson), an arrogant teenager who casually abused the girl and beat her the night she died, but Dormer realises that he is not guilty. When the girl's bag is found on a rocky beach, Dormer plans a trap for the real killer by making a public announcement that it is of crucial importance in the case.
Sure enough, the killer is lured out to remove the evidence and Dormer and the local police - including a smart young rookie (Swank) - lie in wait. But when the killer arrives, fog has enshrouded the beach and in the chase that ensues, Dormer accidentally kills Hap. Nervous that he will be accused of deliberately shooting him over the internal affairs investigation, Dormer pretends that the killer was responsible. Taking the gun which the killer has dropped, he swaps the bullets and no suspicion falls on him.
But the killer - local pulp novelist Walter Finch (Williams) - has seen Dormer kill his partner, and when the cop starts sniffing around Finch as a suspect he threatens to unmask him. If Dormer frames the dead girl's boyfriend for the murder, Finch will keep his secret.
All the while, Dormer is unable to sleep due to the perpetual sunlight. Finch starts to taunt him during the night and, as his insomnia becomes more extreme, the temptation to save his own skin by working with the killer becomes greater. Dormer's decision, combined with the growing suspicions of Swank, compose the tense climax. Nolan goes with a more sombre ending than Skjoldbjaerg did, but it fits the mood of the piece, a true psychological thriller.
Nolan is in masterful control of his taut narrative, while eliciting subtle and restrained performances from both Pacino and Williams, who, in the wrong hands, can both be ham-fisted. Pacino in particular is compelling as the brilliant cop struggling with his dilemma and insomnia and headed for a meltdown. Stellan Skaarsgard was dynamic in the original, but Pacino brings a more authoritative brand of world-weariness to the proceedings.
The rest of the cast, excellent to the last, pale somewhat beside Pacino. Williams and Swank are convincing, while Tierney touching as the hotel receptionist who strikes up a rapport with Dormer. Donovan, Katt, Jackson and Dooley all fine.
Prod cos: Witt-Thomas Films, Section Eight, Alcon Entertainment, Warner Bros
North American dist: Warner Bros
Int'l sales: Summit Entertainment
Prods: Paul Junger Witt, Edward L McDonnell, Broderick Johnson, Andrew A Kosove
Exec prods: George Clooney, Steven Soderbergh, Tony Thomas, Kim Roth, Charles JD Schlissel
Scr: Hillary Seitz, adapted from the screenplay by Erik Skjoldbjaerg and Nikolaj Frobenius
Cinematography: Wally Pfister
Prod des: Nathan Crowley
Ed: Dody Dorn
Music: David Julyan
Main cast: Al Pacino, Robin Williams, Hilary Swank, Maura Tierney, Martin Donovan, Nicky Katt, Jonathan Jackson, Paul Dooley